Guide to becoming a mystery shopper
If there’s one thing better than getting paid hard cash, it’s getting paid hard cash to shop at your favourite stores. Sound too good to be true? Becoming a mystery shopper is a great part-time gig for students: Not only do you get paid for your time and get to choose the hours you work, but you also scoop up freebies in the process.
Most of the big retailers are signed up to some kind of mystery shopping scheme, so there’s plenty of work out there. However, with around 500,000 people registered as mystery shoppers in the UK, competition to land a job is getting increasingly tougher.
So is it really worth it? We’ve done the research and put together this comprehensive guide to ensure you’re armed with all the info you need.
Have you worked as a mystery shopper before? Don’t forget to share your experiences with us in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you…
What’s on this page?
What is mystery shopping?
While the clue is in the name, mystery shopping isn’t about getting your Poirot on down the local Primark… but it’s not far off!
Mystery shopping is a job (yes, it really is a form of employment) where you sign up to an agency or independent company that pays ‘mystery shoppers’ to visit businesses anonymously around the country in order to check that specific standards are being met (e.g. cleanliness, good customer service, etc.).
It isn’t just about clothes or groceries either. You could find yourself grabbing a free dinner at a restaurant, having your eyesight tested or even counting trains at a train station – so mystery shopping is also mystery eating, mystery drinking, and…err… mystery train counting?
The process involved in mystery shopping tends to vary from job to job, but most commonly will looks like this:
You’ll be given a specific set of instructions to read before venturing into a shop or business. These instructions will include guidelines on what to buy (this part is normally quite flexible), a list of things to ask in store, as well as any details you need to watch out for and remember to take a mental note of.
Once you get home, you’ll usually need to write up a report on your findings and send this to the agency. This can take anything up to two hours to complete, so make sure you leave yourself enough time afterwards to get the paperwork done.
Credit: Georgie Pauwels – Flickr.com
Other forms of mystery shopping include:
- Postal monitoring: You sign up to have brochures and catalogues sent to your home address and record how long they take to arrive, what state they arrive in, etc.
- Mystery shopping by phone: This one can even mean starting work before getting out of bed! Telephone mystery shopping involves calling up stores with general questions and assessing (and recording!) how these are answered.
- Email mystery shopping: Similar to phone mystery shopping, but this method is obviously more for online stores or stores who have a strong online presence.
- Online survey: This can entail completing product reviews or simply filling out online surveys related to certain brands.
The pay for mystery shopping jobs tend to vary dramatically, but unfortunately in recent years companies have started offering less money or even no payment at all.
In the past, some full-time mystery shoppers have reported earning between £30-40,000 per year, but it’s worth knowing that this is after spending many years on the job and earning a reputation in the industry. Unfortunately, it seems the days of this sort of mystery shopper salary are over.
Today, you’re more likely to be offered work where you won’t receive payment, but will be given a budget to spend in store, and will be allowed to keep what you buy as a freebie (so make sure you choose something you really want!).
Most companies also offer travel expenses, so make sure you keep hold of any train tickets you use so you can claim the cash back.
There are a whole slog of companies offering mystery shopper work in the UK, but unfortunately this also means the industry is rife with fake companies trying to scam you into paying registration fees to join agencies that don’t exist.
It should always be free to sign up to mystery shopping, so if a site asks for payment, approach with extreme caution.
When in doubt, check out the MSPA website (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) to see if the company is listed. If their name’s not down, run a mile!
Signing up is generally pretty pain free: there’s no need for CVs or references – just fill out an online survey and you’re all set.
Here’s our take on some of the most popular mystery shopper sites in the UK.
Formerly known as Retail Eyes, this is one of the UK’s most well-known mystery shopping sites and with 300,000 registered members, it’s certainly one of the biggest.
They host a massive range of jobs – they have everything from visiting opticians to checking out local pubs – so chances are you’ll be able to find something up your street.
Payment: Very low or just in freebies (worth £5-15)
Pros: Variety of assignments
Cons: Bad customer service
Field Agent is an app that offers a list of mystery shopping tasks according to your location. We really like Field Agent as it’s probably the mystery shopping company most well-suited to young people, as it requires minimum effort and caters to the idea that young people are on the go a lot.
Tasks can vary from taking a quick sneaky pic of a shop display, to submitting feedback on customer service. Payment is processed through Paypal, making it pretty quick and straight forward.
Payment: £2-8 per task
Pros: Easy to use, wide variety of tasks available and payment is simple
Cons: Payment is low, so you’d have to do a few tasks to make some pocket money
Another biggie in the world of mystery shops, IMS pay out more for your time spent sloggin’ and shoppin’.
The catch? That would be their stringent application process. This involves a full interview process as well as taking an e-learning course, but if you can put up with the extra effort, the work could be rewarding. We’d recommend IMS to those looking to take mystery shopping quite seriously rather than for picking up freebies.
Payment: Varies widely but is very reasonable
Pros: Good payment
Cons: Long application process and no guarantee you’ll get work afterwards
The Mystery Dining Company
Love eating out but hate having to fork out for it? The Mystery Dining Company offer free meals at designated restaurants to those culinary experts (or near enough!) who are willing to take the time to write a detailed report on their experience afterwards.
To join up you need to first ‘pass’ an application process to see if you’re the right fit. Rejection rates are quite high, so make sure you take the time to do this part properly. Also worth noting that the more you work and the better job you make of it, you’ll be awarded with a reviewer rating badge – go for gold and you could be awarded with a michelin star experience!
Payment: No payment offered, but meal is paid for and sometimes travel expenses covered
Pros: Free meals!
Cons: Reporting process takes longer than mystery shopping as requires more detail
Another reputable company, there are a wealth of assignments on GfK covering the whole of the UK and often smaller UK suburbs as well as bigger cities.
You won’t find yourself caught up with lengthy applications here though, all you need to do is complete a survey on their website and you’re good to go. However, one complaint would be that the reporting process for GfK is notoriously time consuming. In this sense, you’re expected to really work for your cash, but GfK do pay generously!
Payment: Generous (but undisclosed)
Pros: Generous payment
Cons: Reporting process is time-consuming
GAPBuster (Now GBW)
GAPBuster have recently rebranded themselves as GBW (we’re still not sure why, or what GBW stands for). McDonald’s is their biggest client so this company is a great choice if you fancy some free happy meals!
They have been reported to send out repeat assignments to the same location as well to monitor improvements, so this might not be the best choice if you’re looking for variety.
Payment: Between £5-10 per job
Pros: Paperwork is clear and easy to complete
Cons: Payment is quite low and reimbursement slow
Retail Maxim is a popular agency with a lot of subscribers, but we have heard complaints that this has resulted in jobs being scooped up a matter of minutes after they are posted online!
This means you’ll have to be quick in order to bag yourself a job, and also be quite flexible with your time. They do send out cheques to cover shopping trips in advance, which is good for those of us who can’t afford to wait for reimbursement later.
Payment: £7-12 per job + travel expenses
Pros: Money for spending in store offered upfront
Cons: Jobs are few and far between
Grassroots are the company to go for if you’re not interested in being bombarded with emails advertising available positions.
The best way to find work with Grassroots is to keep checking their website, as it’s constantly updated throughout each day. Video options are also available which tends to pay more, and payment is normally received around 3-4 weeks after the job.
Payment: £5-10 per job + freebies
Pros: Clear instructions and payment quick
Cons: Jobs can be infrequent and normally only available in the bigger UK cities
Tern Consultancy is a nice option if you’re looking to try out some of the different varieties of mystery shopping, as they also offer opportunities for video and audio-only shopping (which also tend to pay a bit more).
However, ironically for a company assessing customer service, we’ve heard that theirs is not all that great!
Payment: Around £12 per job
Pros: Payment is the highest we’ve seen
Cons: Bad customer service
- Work regularly: While you can choose your hours, the secret to getting the best jobs is being flexible and offering to work regularly. The more you work, the more your reputation will grow, and the work will start a-rollin’ in.
- Memory practice: As you won’t be able to have a notepad handy on the job as this will give the game away, you’ll need to perfect your memory to you can remember details for your report later. Think of it as good practice for exam time!
- Keep the tax man happy: It’s unlikely you’ll earn enough to be taxed, but mystery shopping technically does count as self employment, so if you do think you might earn over the tax bracket, make sure you declare it. Check out our students tax facts page to see if this applies to you.
- Sign up to multiple companies at once: There are loads of mystery shopper sites out there, but work can be scarce, so signing up to multiple companies simultaneously will increase your chances of finding something that’s a good deal for you.
Credit: Markheybo – Flickr.com
- Be late: You’ll have to submit a report after each visit, and this normally has to be done within a specific time frame. If you hand your report in late, you might not be paid and could be axed from further jobs.
- Ever pay to register: No reputable mystery shopper business will ask you to pay to join. However, they probably will ask for your bank and sort code, but this will be in order to pay you for your work.
- Forget to ask for details: As we covered – there is a lot of variation involved in the kinds of reimbursements and payments with this kind of work. Make sure you know exactly what you’re signing yourself up to for before taking on a job.
If you’re looking for a bit of fun and some freebies, give mystery shopping a whirl! Truthfully, you’re not likely to be able to pay off your student loan with your earnings, but it’s good experience and also something interesting to pimp up your CV.
Let us know how you get on by posting in the comments section below.
Not convinced? Head over to our list of quick and easy money-making tips – you’ve got another 39 to try out!